Review: Murdered: Soul Suspect tells an interesting story with uninteresting gameplay
Platforms: PC. PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Since the central mystery and story is so important to Murdered: Soul Suspect, I will be careful not to spoil anything you don't find out in the first third of the game.
Take the crime scene investigation aspect of LA Noire, simplify that a bit too much, add some effective supernatural elements and a decent if cut-scene heavy story and you have Murdered: Soul Suspect, the newest game from publisher Square Enix. Though the core gameplay isn't riveting and the game suffers from occasionally bugs and odd design choices, the story and aesthetics are interesting enough to keep you playing to the end of the game's 10-15 hour main story, and there are plenty of collectibles and side-quests to attract completionists that could potentially expand the gameplay by quite a few hours.
All Aboard the Murder Train
In Murdered you play a police officer with the improbable name of "Ronan" who comes from an even more improbable past: a prison term for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, among other crimes. Though I'm used to suspending my disbelief in games, for some reason the idea of a convicted felon becoming a cop was harder for me to swallow than a really fast blue hedgehog, especially since so much of Murdered relies on the player taking its story and characters very seriously. Fortunately after this initial laugh there aren't too many more storyline clunks, so it's best to just accept Ronan's backstory and move on.
Before the game's opening cut-scene -- the first of MANY -- is complete, Ronan has been murdered. He meets his fate after getting in the way of a mysterious figure known as "The Bell Killer," a serial murderer who uses a bell symbol as his calling card and who has been plaguing Salem, Massachusetts.
After dying, Ronan finds himself living on as a ghost, and after some quick tutoring from a young ghost girl named Abigail he learns about a few of his new abilities, including the power to inhabit people's bodies to read or influence their thoughts, and the dangers of his new "life," which come in the form of demonic entities that reach out from flaming pits on the ground or roam the buildings of Salem, ready to pounce upon and devour ghosts like Ronan.
Ronan sets about attempting to solve the case of the Bell Killer, though his investigation is much more complicated now that he himself is a victim. While he is now able to pass through walls and other physical objects -- though usually not the outside walls of buildings, since they have been blessed by residents in the past -- he is also unable to actually interact with much of the world around him, and he's silent and invisible to most of the residents of Salem.
One person who CAN see him, though, is a girl named Joy, the daughter of a psychic investigator who had been assisting the police with the Bell Killer case prior to her recent disappearance. Ronan and Joy quickly form an alliance and begin working together to catch the killer at the center of the story.
Looking for Clues
Progressing through Murdered's story involves crisscrossing the town of Salem, visiting one of a handful of different locations, and investigating certain designated areas for clues. Clues can be anything from photographs to footprints to psychic remnants of past events, and finding all of them in a location usually isn't that difficult -- though there were a few times when I ended up running around the investigation area for while, spamming the "investigate" button and hoping the on-screen prompt would happen to pop up as I ran by a clue I had missed.
Aside from this core investigation element, which makes up the bulk of the gameplay along the main storyline as well as the primary way you aid the random sidequest ghosts you'll encounter on your journey, you'll also get to possess the bodies of living people you encounter (not as fun as it sounds), use some poltergeist abilities to create distractions to help Joy sneak around in a few areas, take control of cats to reach inaccessible areas, and occasionally dodge soul-sucking demons in some stealth gameplay.
The investigation sections of the game work well enough, though there were elements of them that seemed strange and clunky. A frequent device involves discovering a clue, then possessing a person to make them think about that clue so they'll perform an action you need. In practice, this leads to oddities like a prompt saying "What clue would make him look at the picture?" The answer, of course, is "The Picture." It was so simple and dumb that I actually got it wrong a few times because I dismissed it as a possibility. It's like being asked "Who committed the murder?" and being expected to answer "The murderer."
There are other bizarrely simplistic touches as well, including segments where you watch a frozen psychic image of a person and are then asked to identify what's happening in that image, with choices as blatant as "afraid," "hiding," and "happy." At one point you'll even need to distinguish whether a girl in a perfectly clear image is sitting or falling down, and if making that call is a challenge for you then I seriously doubt your ability to turn on your game console in the first place.
Not ALL of the game's little mysteries are this simple, of course, but none of them are very hard either. I can't imagine many players having to think for very long about any of the game's investigation segments, and you're going to spend a lot more time spotting the clues in the environment around you then you will figuring out how they fit together. Often, in fact, all it takes is a quick look around to locate two or three central clues, and then you'll be able to trigger a cut-scene to advance the story -- without having done much of anything at all.
It's a shame that so much of Murdered centers on the investigation mechanic, since I found it to be the most entertaining as an actual game when it explored other styles of gameplay. The occasions when you take control of cats and when you're helping Joy sneak through an area by creating distractions both had a lot of potential, and were fun in their brief appearances. If these segments had been expanded and given some additional depth and variety they could have been more than just short diversions.
The demonic antagonists are responsible for both the best and the worst gameplay aspects of Murdered. Whenever they show up in their roaming form, which is usually announced with a piercing and genuinely frightening shriek, the player has a chance to experience some effective stealth horror mechanics.
Despite its ghostly premise, Murdered clearly isn't intended to be a scary game -- apart from the sections in which you deal with the demons. You need to hide in scattered patches of ghost residue to make your way past your enemies, or you can attempt to sneak up behind them and attempt to destroy them, which requires you to press a random pair of buttons during a brief window. I always found these segments to be tense, in part because the look and sounds of the demons were so well done, and I would have loved to see these sections fleshed out.
When the demons are limited to an existence as floor hazards, though, as is more often the case, they are much less fun to deal with. Getting too close to these flaming pits leads to instant "death," which wouldn't be so bad if this weren't a game where running through walls is such a common occurrence. I was a lot less inclined to search for hidden items after my third time running through a wall and dying in a pit I had no way of knowing was going to be there. It wasn't an extremely common problem, but I found it indicative of a larger issue with Murdered: a lot of the things that happen in the game just aren't particularly fun.
Ghosts in the Machine
Murdered suffers from a host of minor issues that detract from the experience. While the central story of the Bell Killer is strong, I found the side-quests, side-stories, and collectible character and story details to be tedious, and all but abandoned them entirely about halfway through the game. Since the only real rewards these side elements provide are achievements, I didn't feel as though I were missing out on very much.
I also encountered a few bugs and graphical oddities in Murdered, which I played on the PlayStation 4. While it was nothing game-breaking, I did have to restart from a previous checkpoint twice when events failed to trigger properly. Additionally, for some reason the game never registered my completion of an early objective, which meant that the pause screen told me my goal was to "Exit the Attic" for about eighty percent of the game. Again, it didn't stop me from progressing, but it was irritating.
There's nothing special about the graphics in the PS4 version of Murdered, and the game could have benefited from some of the highly-detailed facial animation present in a game like LA Noire. Ghostly touches like transparency, fog, and atmospheric lighting all looked nice, but there wasn't anything to distinguish the version I played from a PS3 game.
Here are the criteria I consider most important for judging Murdered: Soul Suspect.
The game tells an interesting supernatural mystery in the classic setting of Salem.
The investigation segments are too simplistic, but get the job done. The game is at its best when it explores other styles of play.
Fine for a last-gen title, unimpressive on a new-gen console.
Bugs and odd design decisions might have been corrected with some additional testing.
Overall score: 6.8/10
Murdered: Soul Suspect isn't revolutionary and the core gameplay doesn't offer much of note, but fans of supernatural stories and mystery-solving games will probably enjoy most of what they find in this title.
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